When P.J. Fleck was the honcho for Western Michigan’s football program, recruiting top — “elite” — talents was atop the list. By 247sports.com, Fleck’s recruiting class of 2015 was ranked first in the Mid-American Conference with an average composite score of 80.51 with 14 of its 27 players rated as three-star players.
Among those three-star recruits was Kadeem Goulbourne. At the time, Goulbourne was 6-foot-4, 200 pounds and was coming off of a foot injury. That foot injury repelled the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten and Southeastern Conference teams from sticking with Goulbourne, even after they offered him a scholarship.
From there, Goulbourne committed to Southern Methodist, de-committed after June Jones resigned from his head coaching position, committed and signed with Western Michigan, transferred to a junior college in Iowa, then transferred to be a starting wide receiver at Austin Peay: all in some three years time.
Sounds like a telltale of a player who received the stamp of disapproval — a bust. But maturity and development isn’t linear.
RECRUITING PROCESS: PART I
“Back in high school, I didn’t think about those things,” Goulbourne said, when he talked about grooming his maturity. “I got too wrapped up in being a good football player.”
Can you blame him? One minute he’s watching the Michael Irvin catch passes on television for the Dallas Cowboys. The next, he’s a teen-aged boy receiving scholarship offers from all over. Ole Miss. Tennessee. Indiana. Boston College. Missouri. Marshall. Syracuse. Wisconsin. Akron. Northern Illinois. The dream of playing at the NFL level was surely in sight.
Goulbourne broke his foot in the first week of his senior season at Cypress Bay High School in Weston, Fla., which is west of Fort Lauderdale and north of Miami. Programs like Clemson, Kentucky, Michigan State and Stanford all backed off, but Jones and his staff understood Goulbourne’s injury.
“(Jones’) son went through the same injury, so he wasn’t too worried,” Goulbourne remembers. Jones and his staff at SMU built up trust with the high-ceiling wide receiver, which was important to Goulbourne’s decision in picking a college.
On Sept. 8, 2014, Jones resigned from his position, citing personal reasons. The SMU athletic director still wanted Goulbourne to follow through with his commitment, but the trust was with Jones, not the unknown replacement.
Then there was another coach, up in Kalamazoo, Mich. that stuck with Goulbourne during this time.
“I was looking for the best place for me to grow,” Goulbourne said of his commitment to Western Michigan. “(Fleck) is a great guy, and really cares for his players. He showed a lot of love to his players and was never negative. … He wanted to best of his players every time.”
The Broncos were coming off of an 8-5 season in 2014, which was a seven-game improvement from Fleck’s first season at WMU.
Goulbourne signed and practiced with the Broncos, rotating with the first team, second team and scout team units.
Anybody that followed WMU knew that there was a wide receiver on that team that was bound for greatness. Through his sophomore season, Corey Davis caught 145 passes for 2,349 yards and scored 21 times. Davis was also coming off of a season where he received First Team All-MAC honors and was the MVP of the Idaho Potato Bowl where he caught eight passes for 176 yards — his eighth 100+ yard game of the season — and scored three touchdowns.
“(Davis) really brought me under his wing. He’s the one that actually showed me how to practice,” Goulbourne said. “He taught me that everything needs to be consistent, which was one of my struggles coming in. He was such a great mentor.”
Going from a star that played every game to being a redshirt player was an adjustment in itself. Moving from Florida to Michigan was another.
“It was a tough move. That wast the first time I’ve ever seen snow or ice, so I had to accommodate for that,” said Goulbourne.
In an interview with NJ.com, Goulbourne said: “It came to a point where I had to self-chat to myself. And it just turned out that it just didn’t fit me. I’d like to thank coach Fleck and the coaching staff for sticking with me through high school, but at the end of the day my future is very important to me. And my grind and getting to the next level is very important to me as well.”
RECRUITING PROCESS: PART II
After going from Florida to Michigan, Goulbourne found himself playing for Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
The junior college route was eye-opening for Goulbourne. It’s a popular maneuver for players to rotate through schools to find what will make them happy in the end, and became an even more mainstream topic after Netflix introduced its documentary series “Last Chance U.”
“Our program was never like that,” Goulbourne explained. “Yeah, it wasn’t anything like what you saw on that show. (Head coach Scott Strohmeier) ran it like a Division-I program.”
In all 12 games at Iowa Western last year, Goulbourne caught 29 passes for 358 yards and scored two touchdowns as the Reivers went on to a 6-6 record. Against Garden City, one of the top JUCO football programs in the country, he caught six balls for 106 yards and scored on a 49-yard reception.
Some of the schools that were interested in Goulbourne before were still looking to have him again after his 2016 campaign: Rutgers, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Oregon State.
But when Austin Peay head coach Will Healy made his rounds to talk to Goulbourne, things were different.
“Coach Healy and coach (Todd) Pinkston (Peay’s wide receiver coach and former Philadelphia Eagle) sat me down and we just talked about life. Football wasn’t even introduced until the last day,” Goulbourne recalled. “If you can be a better person, then that can equate to you being a better player on the field.
“(Austin Peay) wasn’t like anybody else. It wasn’t about trying to be Division-I (FBS) again, it was about how I fit in with the team.”
There were clearly big differences between Goulbourne’s recruiting process in high school versus what he faced as a JUCO player.
In high school, Goulbourne was an abstract picture with four or five years to give to a program, but it was a foot injury early in his senior year that kept him from playing and keeping the scouts around.
At Iowa Western, teams weren’t going after him as heavily. Teams had more questions to ask, more conservative about offering, hesitant knowing that he now had three years to give.
“It was really eye-opening for me,” Goulbourne said. “In high school, they didn’t have a huge idea about you, they just had a little piece of information on you. But in junior college it was different. They were asking ‘Why did you transfer? What was your GPA (grade point average) before you transferred? What is your GPA now? Why this junior college?’
“It’s all a journey, and in junior college you found out who really wanted to play. … I didn’t want to go anywhere where I didn’t have a relationship with the head coach and the staff.”
THIRD TEAM IN THREE YEARS
During the preseason, Healy spoke with The Tennessean about the big-play potential he saw in his offense and how he planned on using his incoming players.
With sophomore quarterback JaVaughn Craig and freshman Jeremiah Oatsvall, both dual-threat players, vying for the starting role, Austin Peay’s got a basis to build the spread and are working on developing a receiving core to match.
Austin Peay lost the leading receiver Jared Beard to transfer but just as quickly replaced him with junior college transfers DJ Montgomery and Kadeem Goulbourne. Along with the core’s leader, Kyran Moore, the receiver bunch is starting to add some depth that will help take pressure off of the quarterback and Kentel Williams, if they can just stay constant.
“We are talented enough at wide out to be dynamic and we are seeing it one day but we are not seeing it the next,” said Healy.
“We expect a lot out of that group and we’ve got the talent to do it but we are not living up to those expectations right now.”
It’s a work in progress that can be seen across the field at camp.
Now with the Governors, Goulbourne will make his second start with the FCS program as they have another road game against the Miami RedHawks.
Has coming back to play against a MAC team — a league he transferred out from — crossed Goulbourne’s mind?
“Honestly, I haven’t thought too much about it. I just worry about getting myself ready and being mentally prepared for bigger things to come,” Goulbourne answered.
Last week, Goulbourne went without a catch against Cincinnati in a 26-14 loss to open up the season. The team went 9-for-19 passing for 89. Of the six players players that caught passes, three had two receptions, the other half had one each. The team rushed the ball 60 times by nine different players.
Goulbourne, who is eligible to play through the 2019 season, still plans on becoming a big-time wide receiver he dreamed about when he used to watch Michael Irvin with his dad.
“Playing at the next level is what I’m playing for. Being a future star in the NFL is one of my goals.”